June 21, 2014
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq meets with President Obama at the White House in 2013. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
We don’t have a leadership vacuum in the Middle East. What we have is a reality vacuum.
The vacuous “vacuum” chatter is back, reappearing in the Iraq debate after its long run as the all-purpose explanation for internecine Islamic bloodletting in Syria. That should make perfect sense since Iraq is Syria: same players, same bloodletting. Yet, the “vacuum” is wildly different from place to place, which also makes perfect sense . . . but only because the idea of a “vacuum” is nonsense on stilts.
Syria, we are told, disintegrated because President Obama’s abdication created a leadership void — “the vacuum” — that al-Qaeda rushed in to fill. The “moderate” Sunni “rebels,” the story goes, were poised to fulfill America’s top priority, undermining Iran, by overthrowing the Shiite regime the mullahs control in Damascus. But the president failed to back “moderate” Sunni “rebels,” who threw in their lot with al-Qaeda — strictly, we are to believe, owing to Obama’s default, not to the ideological harmony of the “rebels” with the jihadists.
Cross Syria’s eastern border, though, and the vacuum abruptly warps. Now, far from undermining Iran, America’s top priority somehow becomes propping up an Iran-backed Shiite state. Obama’s abdication is thus said to be the failure to “consolidate the gains of the Iraq War” by keeping about 20,000 U.S. troops in place to fend off Sunni “rebels,” who — I know you’ll find this hard to believe — have yet again thrown in their lot with al-Qaeda.
In fact, it turns out that if the same “rebel” gravitates from Syria to Iraq, he’s no longer even a “rebel” anymore; he’s a “terrorist.”
It ought to tell us something that al-Qaeda’s latest incarnation is known as “ISIS.” No, not because it takes an Egyptian goddess of magic to make sense of American policy these days. The acronym is derived from the jihadists’ self-proclaimed name: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to “greater Syria” or the Levant, encompassing the neighboring territories of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, and Southern Turkey.
Jihadists, you see, do not recognize or much care about national boundaries drawn by Western powers. In the world, as they see it, they are pitted against everyone else — Dar al-Islam versus Dar al-Harb: All must choose the realm of Islam or the realm of war. Significantly, al-Qaeda was not the first to revive this ancient Islamic-supremacist perspective. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the creator of Iran’s revolutionary sharia state, famously proclaimed:
We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [i.e., Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.
Unlike us, Islamic supremacists have a strategic vision fit for a global conflict. They do not think in terms of countries. You will never find them thinking their allies in Syria are their mortal enemies in Iraq. They know the principal enemy is Western civilization — especially the United States and Israel. When we are involved, Sunni and Shiite supremacists put aside their mutual hatred and collaborate against us — so that their version of Islam “emerges triumphant.” When we are not involved, they go back to killing each other. ’Twas ever thus, and so shall it ever be, at least in our lifetimes.
Here in the United States, neither the government nor the commentariat has a strategic vision for a global conflict. We have the vacuum, and it shows.
There never was a vacuum in Syria. Assad’s Sunni rivals always teemed with Islamic supremacists. Hoping no one would notice this inconvenient fact, proponents of American intervention vaporously labeled them the “rebels.” But there’s only so many times you can play that game, and our Beltway wizards had done it before in Egypt and Libya, where “Arab Spring” delirium was already being exposed as the pernicious rise of Islamic supremacism. So the interveners talked up the “moderate Syrian opposition,” hoping no one would notice that the “moderates” they had in mind were mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, who seem “moderate” compared to al-Qaeda the same way Al Capone seems moderate if you compare him with Charles Manson.
It is not that there was a complete absence of authentic moderate Muslim and non-Muslim democrats in Syria. There simply aren’t enough of them to make a difference. The brute fact is that only Islamic supremacists and their ruthless jihadist factions had a chance to overthrow Assad, if they got enough outside help.
The claim that Obama abandoned the opposition is equally bogus. Because of the president’s delusional theory that the Muslim Brotherhood are “moderates” we can ally with, he quietly colluded with Qatar and the Saudis to arm and train the Syrian “rebels.” It blew up on him because the “moderates” are not moderate. The Brothers concur in al-Qaeda’s sharia goals and readily resort to terrorism if that is what is necessary to achieve them. So arming the rebels, as Obama helped do, necessarily meant arming anti-American jihadists. This has proved embarrassing, so what Obama has done, at least so far, is refrain from giving the “rebels” decisive aid — the kind he gave the “rebels” in Libya, to disastrous effect in Benghazi. That is hardly an aid vacuum.
Similarly fatuous is the vacuum narrative regarding Iraq. As I argued throughout the Bush years, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has always been Iran’s guy, and under his regime, Iran’s tentacles were allowed to spread throughout post-Saddam Iraq — the State Department and the Iraq Study Group sharing the loopy conceit that Iran had an interest in a stable Iraq even as Iran was fueling both sides of Iraq’s civil war, supplying Sunni terrorists with IEDs, and running Shiite terror cells against our troops.
In the revisionist history of the Iraq War currently on offer, by 2008 the “Sunni awakening” had turned Islamic supremacists into “moderates”; the surge had obliterated al-Qaeda; and Iraq was stabilized and on the cusp of a pluralist, democratic reconciliation. Thus, we’re told, President Bush was able to conclude a successful 2008 status-of-forces agreement with Maliki that would see all American troops out of Iraq by 2011.
In truth, Iraq was never stable. Only the presence of American troops prevented an outbreak of Sunni–Shiite warfare. The Sunnis were temporarily “awakened” by being paid off, not by a commitment to Iraqi “democracy” that promised domination by Iran-controlled Shiites. And because the conflict is global, it was never possible to obliterate al-Qaeda in Iraq.
As recently argued here, the status-of-forces agreement was no success. It was a bad deal President Bush agreed to because it was the best he could get. At the time it was negotiated, there were several problems looming, including a U.N. authorization set to expire on December 31, 2008, and a new president from the anti-war Left about to take power. The biggest challenge, however, is the one to which Washington has been willfully blind for a generation: Islam, and in particular the supremacist interpretation of it that rules the Middle East. Its absence from the debate is the vacuum at the center of the vacuum claptrap.
Iraqis despise Americans. Their sharia jurists, Sunni and Shiite, called for violent jihad to drive the “occupiers” out, and Iraqis thus overwhelmingly demanded that our forces leave the country. Under pressure from his Iranian overseers, Maliki drove a hard bargain with Bush, insisting on an American withdrawal and refusing to grant our troops immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts. Running out of time, Bush acceded to the demands that our forces be dramatically reduced by 2009 and fully evacuated by 2011. In so doing, he agreed to exactly what he had always rightly regarded as folly: hard withdrawal dates that would inevitably encourage jihadists to bide their time and reemerge as we vacated.
The principal challenge confronting the United States in the Middle East is Islam. As taught there, it inspires intense hatred of us from both sides of the Sunni–Shiite divide. President Bush could not make it go away by pretending it was a “false” Islam, and President Obama has made it worse by pretending we can ally with it. But neither of them caused the problem. We will never have a rational foreign policy until we fill that vacuum in our understanding.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, was released by Encounter Books on June 3.